Out of the classroom and onto the stage: Why student theatre is still important

It is no mere fantasy that student theatre can launch the careers of future critically acclaimed theatre practitioners. Household names such as Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Amy Huberman and the infamous Chris O’Dowd all got their start in the comforts of our own drama society here in UCD. These famous Irish actors, playwrights, costume designers and technicians all emerged from hours of work in Dramsoc’s old home in the depths of the Newman basement, equipped with the skills that would launch their careers within the theatre industry.

In a country with a lack of practical theatre courses, the job of training the next generation of practitioners often falls on the volunteers of student theatre societies, such as UCD's own Dramsoc and Musical Soc. From script to stage, these students gain access to skills that some pay thousands to obtain. Often self taught through trial and error, student theatre thrives off the backs of the often overlooked departments of stage management; tech; design and construction (D&C); and props, costumes and make-up (Prostups). These people put in intense hours of hard labour to achieve directors’ visions, with often little award.

However, their rewards can often come after graduation. These students leave their time in the theatre with skills that they can apply to theatre practice on a national scale. UCD Dramsoc alumna Consolata Boyle has been nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. She started her career in the Dramsoc prostups department, before studying costume design at the Abbey. Irish Times theatre awards nominee Colm McNally got his start with DU Players as their Technical Manager. McNally now works as a lighting and set designer with a number of production companies. With many other rising theatre practitioners surfacing from the dark dusty realms of student theatre, it raises the question; without these societies where would they learn these essential, overlooked skills?

Without immersing themself in student theatre where could the next Boyle, Carr or McNally appear from?

Just as there is no shortage of actors, there is no shortage of practical acting courses. From level 5 diplomas to level 8 Bachelor degrees, if acting is the path you want to follow, and if student theatre were to disappear, there would remain other ways to pursue your passion, albeit in highly selective courses. Besides student theatre, where can those interested in behind the scenes learn their craft? Without immersing themselves in student theatre, where could the next Boyle, Carr or McNally appear from?

Allowing the space for those first steps is crucial to future careers in the dramatic arts.

With only one BA option at The Lir in Stage Management and Production open to a mere sixteen students, where else can students train in the technical element of theatre? While there are a handful of courses in sound design, there is an obvious lack of courses teaching lighting design across the country. These courses often focus on lighting design for gigs and concert venues. I’m not sure about you, but as a drama student I can tell you there is a huge difference between a lighting design for a gig and one for a stage performance. Therefore, The Lir becomes pivotal to Irish theatre as Ireland’s only professional doorway into the behind the scenes element of theatre practice for many aspiring designers and stage managers. With this constraint in place, there is a clear spotlight on student theatre as a teaching tool for the next generation of practitioners. Allowing the space for those first steps is crucial to future careers in the dramatic arts.

Maybe the lack of third level courses in these areas stem from the fact that these areas of theatre practice often go unnoticed and are under-appreciated. However, these departments are vital to the success of a production. Without all the elements of set, sound, lighting, costumes, props, and stage hands there would be no difference between a rehearsal and an actual show, a fact that is often forgotten.

Without current department heads passing on their knowledge from year to year, the development of vital skills is lost. Without an educator to share hands-on practical experience Ireland would not have its acclaimed theatre scene. Without student theatre as an institution of self-learning, some of Ireland’s most famous theatre practitioners would not exist. Without the volunteers of student theatre this imperative transfer of knowledge would break down and there would be no next generation for Irish Theatre.